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Let’s Talk About the Military’s Emissions, Again

The continuously escalating developments in the war in Ukraine have called into question multiple aspects of geopolitics as well as states’ genuine commitment to mitigating the climate crisis. The latter has taken a backseat in national policies since the war first started in February, while it is arguable that it never reached the ‘high politics’ agenda in the first place. Nevertheless, the current situation and the global investment in supporting Ukraine have come to shed light to greater disparities created in our understanding of what climate change mitigation entails. This is especially relevant in relation to military emissions, a sensitive topic for governments, and an even more sensitive topic for international representatives. Rich nations like the US and the EU exempt their militaries from emissions regulations, a phenomenon coming concomitantly to the continuous increase in military budgets. Putin’s war saw several NATO countries scurrying to step up their military spending - as Germany “ended decades of policy on military” in 30 minutes, with its military spending increasing from 47 billion euros in 2021, to 100 billion in 2022.

One of the first posts to ever be made in this blog was about the military’s unreported emissions, however, I believe that now more than ever, we find ourselves in a period where governmental decisions and the ways we perceive them can come to define the climate struggle. You can read the original piece here.

The Kyoto Protocol set out the mandatory requirement for countries to report their national gas emissions in 1997. The US government at the time set out a caveat to this: military emissions are exempt from the mandatory GHG emissions requirement. This exception was struck out almost a decade later after the Paris Agreement, but nations came to multilateral agreements making reporting on military emissions discretionary, while the Paris Agreement did not demand the cut of military emissions. Fast forward to 2021, military emissions were once again left out of COP26 negotiations, while there are some hopes that they will join the conversation in COP27.

The US makes estimates as to its military’s emissions, which do not account for the thousands of overseas bases, or tactical fleets in the name of national security concerns. Other nations, such as Canada, incorporate their military emissions in other IPCC categories, such as transportation and aviation. Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) estimated that global military emissions account for nearly 5% of the world’s total or as high as 6% after factoring in emissions from the impacts of war such as health care for casualties and deforestation. This corresponds with Brown University’s Cost of War project which estimated that, in 2019 the US military was “the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world.” The SGR has estimated that the US armed forces emit not 56m tonnes of CO2e (what the US government claimed) but 205m tonnes - quadruple the original estimates. For reference, the Oil Change International report found that the Iraq War was responsible for 141m tonnes of carbon in its first four years. Underestimations, miscalculations and misleading reports may be due to the omission of indirect emissions as a result of military activity, as estimates show that EU nations indirect emissions are double those directly emitted by military activity, while in the UK, this was nearly triple. Some illustrative sources of indirect emissions, according to the Conflict and Environment Observatory, include aviation and the naval fleet, military estates and waste management.

The insufficient regulatory framework around military emissions, therefore, means that there is virtually no incentive for military planners to decarbonise, despite the sector’s significant role in global greenhouse gas emissions. This creates a loophole to the Paris Agreement for nations such as China, the US, the UK and Russia, a phenomenon that is already evident, as the Biden Administration’s Executive Order pledging to cut the federal government’s carbon footprint to zero by 2050 excluded anything related to national security, which accounts for around 70-80% of federal energy use since 2001.

On the one hand, transparency is a critical building block in tackling the climate crisis and a defining value for the Paris Agreement. On the other, transparency can mean the end of a military operation, the destruction of our tropes of power as understood in traditional geopolitics and the violation of national interests abroad. The Defence Department’s chief sustainability officer told TIME that DOD will never compromise its mission to provide military forces needed to deter war and ensure national security, irrespective of the threats that climate change poses.

Despite the validity behind national security concerns, these are compromised when they begin to threaten, not only national, but global security by the ever-growing climate crisis, which can come to destabilise communities equally as much or more than military conflicts themselves. Nationalistic approaches to militarised conflicts lead to a vicious cycle of military emissions - emissions that see no borders.

This has been acknowledged by agencies across the globe. The Red Cross has warned that at least 1.7 billion people are affected by the climate crisis, and that governments should think of climate change in terms of national security - as Chapagain told the Guardian. Similarly, according to a Joint Report by the US intelligence community in October 2021, the unlikelihood of meeting the 2030 goals set out in the Paris Agreement will exacerbate geopolitical tensions. According to this report, there are direct and indirect consequences to the rising temperatures as a result of emissions: rising sea levels affecting military operations, and secondary threat progression such as the rise of violence due to scarce resources.

Nonetheless, practice seems to ignore this, while action remains on paper. The historical creation of loopholes in the name of national security, the exacerbated increase of a military bootprint in tandem with the rise of military budgets around the world in the wake of conflict are but a few illustrative examples showing that the climate crisis is yet to enter the high politics agenda despite the overwhelming evidence showing that it should be.



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